Pacific Postcards

Minna Belidhon: From One Island to Another

The Philippines, often known as the Pearl of the Orient Seas, with its 7,641 islands rich with minerals, oil, and coral reefs, is the home to many native indigenous tribes and aquamarine life. But, along with other islands in the Pacific seas, the country has also been colonized for thousands of years. The Spanish empire, to be exact, colonized the Philippines for three hundred and thirty-three years. Throughout history, there have been numerous reasons written and told as to why exactly Spain has chosen the Philippines. Was it for the oil? For the coconuts? For the spices? Or for imperial power? But, no matter the reason, the impact of colonization distinctly clings to many Filipinos up to today. It is the countless deaths, the harsh despair and grief that would never get smaller, and the forever altered, colonized, image of the Philippines. The famous painting Spoliarium, by Juan Luna de San Pedro y Novicio Ancheta perfectly depicts the raw and bloody consequence of one of the Spanish colonizations in the Pacific Ocean that lasted from 1565 to 1898. It is a byproduct of an “exploration” that started from the shore of Homonhon islands on the Northeast end of the Pacific Ocean. Until the ships proceed to creep up, to every island of the Philippine archipelago.

‘Spoliarium’ in Latin refers to the dumping area for fallen gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. The painting depicts the harrowing and gory death of a slaughtered gladiator in the hands of a Roman soldier. In the metaphorical sense, the gladiators are the fallen Filipinos during the Spanish reign. Spoliarium is a huge oil painting, with the size of 4.22 meters by 7.68 meters by Juan Luna in the year 1884. It was an entree to the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid which garnered attention, winning Juan Luna his first gold medal along with fame and recognition. Juan Luna y Novicio is a sculptor, painter, and political activist in the Philippines. As he was born in an affluent family, he was well-off enough to have trips to Paris, Madrid, and Rome to learn and further his skills, therefore leading him to enter the first art exposition in Madrid. He was one of the few Filipinos who were able to have the privilege of a stable life and career during the Spanish reign. This enabled him to have more freedom and leeway in terms of organizing revolutionary work and publishing works that critique the government. 

Perhaps, Juan Luna’s life background impacted Spoliarium itself, with its portrayal of different sides of the Roman Colosseum arena. With a deeper look at the painting, spectators were depicted on the left. They look at the fallen gladiators with amusement, curiosity, and excitement as one man in a grey cloak was even pointing at the dead body while talking to his companion. More people were coming down from what looks like an entryway by the stairs to come down to look at the spectacle at the arena. Their faces lack sorrow or repulsion to the corpse. Upon observation, these spectators are not Filipinos. Although it does not represent all Filipinos, the flat bridge and bulbous tips of noses are one of the apparent ethnic features of many Filipinos, especially their native ancestors. This nose shape is something that the spectators in the painting do not have. However, on the right side, there is an obvious difference between reactions. One woman in a blue dress is on the ground, possibly weeping. One man is holding a torch, perhaps looking among the dead bodies of gladiators for someone he knows. A woman is also leaning into the wall as if crying or looking away from the sight of the corpses. Although it is difficult to tell if the people on the right side are Filipinos because of the dark lighting, the historical context has been passed down between generations that this is to represent Filipinos’ suffering under the Spanish reign.

Juan Luna himself has experienced a better life. He knows, first hand, how it feels like to be on the other side of the spectrum; someone directly unaffected by violence, poverty, and danger. This perspective was able to shine through in the painting by accurately depicting both sides in the divide between money, class, race, and power between Filipinos and Europeans. Most of the time, violence can be, and is, seen as entertainment by the people on the side with power and financial superiority. In the painting, both sides were represented and the differences were contrasted not only by positioning but by change of color and lighting. There was a shift in gloom and atmosphere on the right side that is not seen nor felt on the left side. The spotlight was also on the fallen gladiator as if their death is something to be seen and exposed, as rightfully so. But, it was being perceived differently and seen as a spectacle instead. 

Throughout the times, there was also a lot of violence that occurred throughout the Pacific ocean and the Philippines’ neighboring islands. Behind all of these is the sense of entitlement foreigners have preconceived about the Pacific Islands. Violence was not only limited to the physical military ground or vicious battles over territorial claims. Sexual violence, especially with young girls and children was horrendous at these times. In Chapter 2 of David Igler’s book, The Great Ocean, he talked about how indigenous women were being treated as commodities. He stated, “From Alaska to Baja California, indigenous women were abused as hostages, openly bartered as sex slaves and prostituted for commodities” (Igler, 51). There was a structured system of forced prostitution that went on for years. As described, “The La Boudeuse and Etoile were surrounded by Tahitian dugout canoes ‘filled with women...young women and girls physically undressed by their elders appear mute in these highly charged proceedings” (Igler, 51). One can draw the parallels between fallen gladiators being treated as a show, and indigenous women and young girls are being seen and treated as an object. Both happen within the same system that allows abuse and inhumane, racist treatment. It is the same system that cultivates the mindset for the desire for sex and power. Although prostitution and war battles are not, and never will be comparable and equal, as it is two different types of violence, it is important to acknowledge that both issues stem from the same root. Whether it is in the Philippines or other Pacific countries, colonization has bought coercion and violence, all with great apathy to its inhumane effects. In the play of power, someone will always have the upper hand and during this period, it was the Europeans. People in privileged situations will be able to laugh and be amazed by the way violence is perceived. Whether it is seen as “entertainment” or something far away from their life, something that cannot touch them.

During the colonization period, numerous revolutionary groups fought back to fight for the land. However, physical threats were something to be treated more seriously than artistic statements. Upon painting, Spoliarium was meant to gather attention and ignite controversy as the year 1884 was right on the brink of a brewing growing resistance and revolution against the Spaniards. At the time, red-tagging and the imprisonment of political activists were prominent. Criticizing the Spaniards leads to death, violence, and long-term imprisonment. As Juan Luna gains fame and recognition, one can argue that it was for a different reason than what was expected. Juan Luna was recognized instead for his artistic abilities and not necessarily because of what he depicted in his painting. It was ironic as if his painting itself was seen only as an exhibition, something that is only for show. However, this fame kick-started his career. Until then, he continued his works until his commentary was finally taken seriously by the Spaniards, along with other revolutionary artivists of this era. By 1886, he was arrested by the Spanish authorities when red-tagged for organizing a revolution with the Katipunan (KKK) Kataastaasan, Kagalanggalangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan, and in English: Supreme and Venerable Association of the Children of the Nation. The pattern of Spaniards treating Filipinos with indifference and atrocity aligns with how Europeans have treated every citizen of the land that was being colonized even if it was about the way people fight back.

The Spanish empire had several reasons as to why they felt the need to explore and expand power throughout the Pacific Ocean. Their primary purpose was to get ahead of the competition for imperial claims and the maritime trade was one of the many factors that paved their way to power. As the Spanish empire held significant imperial power in the Pacific for hundreds of years, they started so with preconceived notions that the land is theirs, and if not, can be theirs. In Joshua Reid’s book, The Sea Is My Country, he talked about how different imperial empires fought for power, on their own, as if the land isn’t owned by anyone at all. He stated, “Because of the Spanish voyages along the Northwest Coast in the 1770s, Spain considered the entire western coast of the Americas as its sovereign territory” (Reid, 38). This explains how in the Spaniards’ minds, the land is theirs because they have traversed it. They have completely disregarded the fact that native indigenous people have been living there for decades, each set up with their systems. Then, “the British prime minister William Pitt protested Martinez’s actions and two empires prepared to go to war” (Reid, 38). Different empires were fighting over a land that is already occupied and has been for decades. Although in this specific example, it is not the Islands of the Philippines, the sense of entitlement and reasoning behind their exploration and colonization are the same on every other island. The specifics might have changed; from sea otters to reefs, sandalwoods to coconuts, or spices to ginseng, the pattern was the same. Their “exploration” fueled with the desire for monopolistic and imperialistic power has inflicted huge, irreparable, and irreversible emotional, physical, and environmental damage to every island they go through. 

The Philippines' history is filled with blood, sweat, and tears. After the Spanish colonization, the United States will then take over. After that, it would be the Japanese. And even then, the Philippines today will still suffer from the damage imperialism and colonization have brought. The trauma of years of sexual violence will have an impact for generations to come. Environmental impacts will stay irreversible. Parts of culture will be lost, hidden, and never found. And as seen throughout history, it is not only the Philippines. Different countries will have different stories, but it will all connect back to colonization, and its appalling harmful impacts.

The Philippines is rich. It is rich with natural resources; minerals, oil, reefs, aquamarine, andterrestrial life. After all, it is the Pearl of the Orient Seas. It is located in the Pacific Ocean, an ocean so massive and bountiful with resources and natural beauty. The Philippines’ location might have attracted foreigners to the land, which then planted the seed for the creation of Spoliarium, following many more stories, but part of the Pacific Ocean is also what makes the Philippines of today. It is the home to Filipinos, to Native Indigenous People, and to every living thing in the land, and in the ocean.



1., 2014,

2. ‌Luna, Juan. “English: High-Resolution Photo of Juan Luna’s Spoliarium.” Wikimedia Commons, 1884, Accessed 23 Sept. 2021.

3. Reid, Joshua L, et al. The Sea Is My Country : The Maritime World of the Makahs, an Indigenous Borderlands People. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, p. 38.

4. Igler, David. The Great Ocean : Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 51.

5. Araling Panlipunan; Philippines History Studies. Cupang Elementary School Annex, Muntinlupa Science High School, Year 1-7. 2007-2015.


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